On view through September 2, the New-York Historical Society’s newest exhibition, “Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History,” chronicles the rise and destruction of the beer business in New York City and offers a “taste” of its resurgence.
From colonial times up to Prohibition, the beer business was among the most prestigious commercial enterprises in New York. Van Cortlandt, Murray, Vassar, and Rutgers were the owners of some of the largest breweries of their time. Since the simple mixture of water, grain, yeast, and hops (a preservative, antimicrobial agent, and flavor-enhancer) was thought to create one of the most sanitary and most digestible drinks available, beer was the literal aqua vitae of the time. And being in the business of beer definitely paid off.
It wasn't long before the government saw the potential benefits of putting a tax on beer. Early beer tax revenue went to pay soldiers who were enlisted as guards against Indian attacks. Later, these taxes would help fund such national endeavors as the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
Technological advances of the nineteenth century such as the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct, and even the bottle capper (a real original hand-operated bottle capper can be seen at the exhibit) helped the beer industry flourish. But, as emphasized by “Beer Here,” nothing had so profound an effect on the expansion of the brewing industry as the surge in German immigration after the Civil War. Germans seeking refuge from political uncertainty and a lack of economic opportunity fled to New York City. These immigrants helped introduce and popularize the lagers (the pilsners and bocks which are clear and sparkling and must be brewed and kept at colder temperatures) and also helped create a more defined drinking culture. The beer halls created by these German immigrants not only changed the architectural landscape of the city, but also gave New Yorkers an alternative family activity for Sundays. The capitalist spirit of the German immigrants mirrored that of the wealthy early-American brewing families. Deciding to expand the influence of their product, the German brewers created an organization called the United States Brewing Association. The USBA became an important player in fighting government taxes on beer and the encroachments of Temperance groups. The group’s meetings were actually held in German until 1875.
Yet just as the popularity of beer was reaching new heights (New York City had 405 breweries at the end of the nineteenth century), support for temperance groups was growing. Motivated by religious ideals, anti-immigration policies, feminist, and progressive beliefs, these temperance groups brought about the steady downfall of the once-great New York brewing business.
Limitations on alcohol started as early as 1855 in New York. Once the Eighteenth Amendment brought about Prohibition (1920-1933), some brewing industries tried to adapt by changing product (often this new product was the malt syrup or malt extract not-so-inconspicuously popular among bootleg and home brewers of the time). But Prohibition's effects on the breweries of New York City were devastating and permanent. Only three big breweries survived Prohibition: Piels, Rheingold, and Schaefer. “Beer Here” has numerous memorabilia from the peak of these three big ones, such as a Miss Rheingold dress and a variety of company drinking cups. Many today remember them, but even with former prestige and new advertising methods, they could not compete for long with the breweries that had recently been established outside of New York, which benefited from lower real estate taxes and easier distribution methods.
The exhibit ends, 50 years in the past, but the story continues. Today, beer production in New York City is making a slow but steady revival. Over the past thirty years, a handful of new breweries have popped up around the city, due in large part to reduced tax rates for brewing on a small scale and expanded definitions of who is allowed to homebrew.
I wish the NYHS's exhibition discussed this newest phase in New York City brewing in greater detail. For example, Brooklyn Brewery, just twenty-four years old, now ships to twenty different countries from a small, single factory in Greenpoint, and remains highly visitor-friendly and tightly incorporated within its neighborhood.
Their recent success is at the mercy of New York government. Just a few months ago, two tax exemptions that had been in place for small New York State breweries were declared unconstitutional by state courts, and these breweries were forced to increase their prices.
Lucky for us, the exhibition, true to its name, ends in a “beer hall,” featuring the newest additions to the brewing trend: beer from Brooklyn Brewery, Harlem Brewery, and Heartland Brewing, to name a few. It seems that despite the history, it is impossible to keep New Yorkers and their brew apart.